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Robert Aickman
Powers of Darkness
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2011

Tartarus Press
UK Hardcover Limited Edition
ISBN 978-1-905-78433-2
Publication Date: 04-10-2011
219 Pages ; £32 ; $50
Date Reviewed: 04-28-2011

Index:  General Fiction  Horror  Fantasy

Writing about a book — and reading itself — is a tricky, selective process. A book can be regarded from a variety of perspectives. One can concern one's self with the plot, the non-fictional content, the characters, the cultural relevance, the imagination and innovation behind the book, the prose — the list is as long as many books. Some books make this easier — their holistic presence obviates any decisions or breakdowns you might care to make. Some books are, in themselves, perfect books.

Tartarus Press makes perfect books; in this case, a mere 350 copies of Robert Aickman's 'Powers of Darkness' (Tartarus Press ; April 2010 ; £32 / $50). Like 'Dark Entries' and 'Sub Rosa' (recently reviewed by Mario Guslandi), 'Powers of Darkness' presents itself whole; from the front cover to the final pages, this is a book meant to enhance, meant to become a reading experience. Between the production values of Tartarus Press and the artistic intelligence of Robert Aickman, this book will entrance and ultimately, haunt you. 'Powers of Darkness' is the perfect example of why we read books.

The first thing you notice when you pick up this book is how thick and heavy it is. Though it is merely 226 pages, it is nearly as thick as Tor's 'All the Lives he Led' by Frederik Pohl, which clocks in at 347 pages. The Tor book weighs 1 lb 3 oz; the Aickman volume from Tartarus Press weighs 1 lb 8 oz. It features a very tight hand-sewn binding with a silk bookmark. Just pick it up. It's an impressive piece of publishing. Putting it next to any New York hardcover is like putting a Porsche next to a Pinto. There is simply no comparison.

The Tartarus cover designs for the Aickman series (and indeed almost all of their work) are classy and simple. Inside it's equally nice. The pages are actually so thick it often feels like you are turning two at once. The typography and layout are generous and very easy to read. This is a book meant not just to be read, but re-read. Fortunately, Robert Aickman's writing lives up to the impressive presentation here.

Aickman is primarily known as a writer of co-called ghost stories, but given the stories herein, that description clearly misses the mark. Even his own preferred description of his work as "strange stories" implies, to most who hear it, that what is considered strange are his implications of the supernatural. But if you back away from the genre associations, what you'll find by and large are stories that are strange not because they sometimes include elements of the fantastic, but rather because they move in what reads like an unerringly straight line to the center of a very complicated human heart. Aickman is not afraid to include anything in his stories; there are often comedic elements, there is lots of psychology, cultural commentary, even considerations of the effects of technology on our lives. Aickman's stories are strange because, in the final analysis, he found people to be strange.

What carries the complexity of Aickman's work is prose that is amazingly beautiful. He never over-writes and never under-writes. There's a smooth, almost but not overly poetic flow to his words. Whether he's describing the state of marriage for the middle aged, the depths of a remote coal mine, or the sounds crawling forth from a bad telephone connection, reading Aickman's prose is a pure and easy pleasure. He has the knack for creating a solid vision of any situation he cares to describe, and doing so in a manner that pulls from that vision the universal within the specifics. Most of these stories were written at least fifty years ago, but you'd rarely even think about that. In fact, Aickman does not make you think so much as he uses prose to put the reader into a very pleasant but ultimately disturbing trance.

Here we can talk, briefly about some of the stories. "Your Tiny Hand is Frozen" is among the most famous here. Edward St. Jude, staying at the home of a friend, begins to experience problems with the telephone. Aickman's technological horror is fresh and jarring because, as with all his work, it is underpinned by strong psychological insights and supple prose. The plot explores St. Jude's psyche as he sinks into depression, perhaps for a very good reason.

"My Poor Friend" reflects some of Aickman's personal interests in the waterways of rural England. The "poor friend" of the title is Walter Enright, a politician who offers to help the narrator in his quest to preserve local electrical generation. Much of the story is an effective vision of the stultifying nature of democratic government. But Enright is a troubled man, whose unusual family problems follow him into politics. There's a nice dose of humor here, particularly in Aickman's understated sardonic prose. But the ultimate fate of those who play with power is not pretty. "A Roman Question" finds a couple at a similarly obtuse conference. Aickman takes a humorous perspective but finds that underneath the obfuscation lays a darkness that does not compromise. Both stories have strong endings, but leave the reader lots of room to explore in the reading experience and in their imaginations precisely what happens.

Aickman has a talent for evoking surreal situations that suggest the supernatural, but never have to explicitly expose it. Instead, everything is conflated in Aickman's prose and deep psychological understandings of his characters. In "The Visiting Star," Colvin is the author of impossibly boring books about lead and plumbago mining. While staying in a remote town, he falls in with the director of a small local theater company who is bringing in "the great actress Arabella Rokeby" to star in his play. She brings with her more personality than anyone bargains for. "Larger Than Oneself" finds Mrs. Iblis alone at a gathering of spiritualists, without any strong beliefs of her own. Aickman ruthlessly skewers the purveyors of any beliefs in scene after scene with razor sharp prose that never goes over-the-top. The end to this gathering lives of to the title.

The final story in this collection is "The Wine-Dark Sea" and is among Aickman's best known, as it was the title story for his most easily found collection of stories. Set on "an island relatively offshore from an enormously larger island which was relatively inshore from the mainland" of Greece, Aickman here evokes the arid beauty of Greek mythology and storytelling. It's gorgeous and subtly erotic. But beauty in the extreme can be rather unreal and potentially dangerous. Just ask Odysseus.

Lending power to the prose and all the stories are the heft and beauty of the volume itself. When you pick up this book to read, you've paid a pretty penny for it. It is worth setting aside a large chunk of time to read each story in one sitting. This book, as published by Tartarus Press, is a perfect example of why reading and the technology of reading are vital to our own ability to undersand ourselves as human beings. It's not just the prose, the stories and the storytelling, or the wonderful published production. The synthesis of all of these, held in your hands as you read is what reading is all about.

As a reader, one can almost feel the haunting quality not just of the prose and the story, but also of the book. The weight of the book lends itself to the weight of the stories within. You will be aware that the eyes that perceive the words on the pages will one day no longer be able to see anything, but the words will still be there. While I would not confine these tales with the description "ghost stories," when you hold this book in your hand you know that it will last. It will very likely outlast the tiny, frozen hands that hold it.

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